The Dentist’s Diary – 713th

Welcome again to another edition of the Diary as the new season creeps even closer. It’s once again been a quiet week (its Groundhog Day in here again isn’t it?) but at least we got the squad numbers released and an indication as to who we are playing in the second round of the competition. Those team numbers actually put a lot of things in perspective and offers us the opportunity to assess the strength and indeed depth of our squad this year, which is something I’ll look at later on in here. However, much in the game, is still up in the air, including what we do about the Elstone situation and how relegation will work if as is expected we bring in a points percentage system to cover for when Clubs can’t, for one reason or another, play games. 

At our club it’s still all quiet, but it was good to hear from Adam in the Yorkshire Post midweek when he described his battle with Covid and the after effects he’d experienced. Thank goodness he’s OK! Our noisy neighbours announce this week that they had 4,500 signed up season ticket holders and it would be nice, I think, to hear how many we have got but for one reason or another it’s pretty silent on that front. 

As for other developments, well, our first two fixtures are now confirmed and as such both look winnable, but at the same time big challenges against two teams with greatly changed squads who both have new coaches, making their first steps with their new clubs. So, we have to be ready, because everyone will want a good start this season, as with the debt that will be ‘hanging round the necks’ of all 12 teams by the end of the year, no one will want to be in a scrap down near the bottom or indeed, heaven forbid, be relegated! 

I watched the Aussie All Stars game on Saturday on Sky and a fast a furious encounter really got the juices flowing for the new season and I consoled myself afterwards with the fact that at least the FC will soon be playing again.

The announcement of our squad numbers held few surprises for any of us, although it was interesting to see Jamie Shaul deposed from the number 1 shirt in favour of Jake Connor, with our regular full-back out for a big chunk of the season with a knee problem. Despite that injury I think that had Lee Radford still been around then Jamie would have probably kept the shirt, so that shows at least that our new Coach is no hostage to sentiment! 

That change wasn’t a surprise either really, because Brett is certainly playing everything straight down the line, however I was impressed with the way that Jamie took the news that he had lost the number 1 shirt that has been his by right for years. I wondered when it happened how he really felt about it, but then he was given instead (after he asked for it) his original debut number in the first team squad (number 29), which was the shirt that he wore throughout 2013. 

He was straight onto twitter saying how proud he was to get that number back and was upbeat about the whole situation, which I thought showed great maturity and perhaps points towards the increasing feeling of togetherness and team spirit that exists across the club. He has received a lot of support from his piers as he starts the long road back to fitness and his comments on twitter brought universal approval and included a great message of encouragement from his ex-team mate Liam Watts. 

However, a note of caution was delivered by Hodgson when he said, “Jamie has been excellent from day one and is really focused on his recovery, he is determined to do everything he can to be able to play some part this season and his return would be a welcome boost for everyone.” ‘Some part’ doesn’t sound like he’s a likely to play much before the end of the campaign if at all this year so, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see on that one. Still, it’s the ‘big one’ for Jake playing full-back from the off and there are no excuses this time around, its where he wants to play and with the guidance he’s getting from his coach, who was arguably one of the best Full-Backs that Super League has seen, he’s got to get it right. I think he could be a real hit this season in a settled position. One thing is for sure, it’s his to lose. 

Our Coach said before he announced the numbers that they had been allocated on the strength of individual players showings in pre-season, but as I say most picked themselves really. It was none the less interesting to see who got Jones’ second row spot between Lane and Savelio, with the latter coming out on top. Just the same Jordan, possibly one of our most improved players last season, can feel unlucky to have just missed out.  What’s more it seems that Brett has decided that any thoughts of Fonua playing centre can be put on the back burner, as Mahe gets the number 5 shirt over Adam Swift, who is again well down the pecking order. Hodgson knows Mahe from Australia and has certainly laid the law down on weight, attitude and fitness and our winger is certainly under no misunderstandings as to what is expected of him this time around.  

One player who seems to have been rewarded for his efforts is young Ben McNamara, who although still just a fringe player has shot in at 19, a reward I’m told for a blistering pre-season thus far. Otherwise, as I say there are few surprises and we probably got the order of numbering that most of us fans would have guessed at anyway. 

Let’s face it, any coach worth his salt always says that squad numbers mean nothing and its down to who is playing the best as to who gets the position on game day. In fact, the only advantage there is for this fan with regard to this annual announcement is that it usually means that the start of the season is at last, not too far away!  

If I were to have a comment looking down that squad then I would agree with the pundits that it’s a good mix of class, experience and youth, but for me a tad thin on the ground with Super League quality outside the starting 17. I hope I’m wrong but when the squad was announced it was immediately a bit of a concern for me. On the face of it we have lost a real match winner in Ratu, perhaps the most inspiring player we have had at the club in years in Gareth Ellis, a real quality game breaker in Albert Kelly and of course Mr Jones (and who knows what he could do, but he was a full England International when he signed!). To replace them we’ve just seen a world class half back arrive in the shape of Josh Reynolds, but that still leaves a few ‘big hitters’ to replace.  

A great article in the HDM on Thursday which compared club’s squads above number 17 sort of emphasised that and identified immediately that we have the second smallest squad in Super League after Leigh where, as is always the case for the poor old team that’s coming up, they are struggling to find players. It’s so unfair when a club finds themselves in that position, particularly as is the case with the Centurion’s, when you are called up late into the top division. 

Fact is any team coming up will struggle to find any sort of class when the rest of the League have had all the previous season to pick over and identify the best available players in both hemispheres. That’s particularly the case when there has been no amateur, reserve grade or junior rugby for over 12 months and so as players retire and move Down Under, the British playing pool is visibly shrinking on a yearly basis. 

The 6 again rule that’s been adopted for 2021 dictates that you need a lighter more mobile squad, which we undoubtably have, but I do think that we are coming up a bit short on numbers at present. I don’t know, perhaps I’ve just got used to having a big roster at Hull FC, but although we have experienced players like Bowden and Swift outside the first 17, with that list, if we have three or four injuries we are going to be relying on youngsters, many of whom haven’t even got a number yet and are completely untried. 

When you see Jamie Shaul with squad number 29, you immediately sort of think, ‘that’s not bad’, until you realise that there is no 18, 27 or 28 and in effect we are going into the season with a squad of 26, one of whom is the untried Jude Ferreira and another, Jamie Shaul, who is likely to be injured until the last weeks of the season. Without those two we are down to 24 whilst some Clubs have players running about in pre-season training with, 33 and 34 on their backs and they aren’t all untried youngsters. 

That said I think in general a lot of clubs are putting their trust in youth, but most of ours are certainlty unproven. Of course, our starting 17 is strong and that’s great, but it will only take one of those periods when we have three or four key players missing and say the likes of Matongo and Swift struggling for form and we will be in deep doo-doo. That’s the position for a few other teams as well, but it does worry me a bit!

Brown is for me the real deal, but might not be quite ready for long spells week in week out, Scott and Wynne are great prospects, but need to be eased into the first team and could struggle if they have to play too many consecutive matches in a team under pressure and McNamara, despite being a great one for the future, could struggle and suffer from burn out if he is over-played. 

 We might add a few of the 8 other youngsters training with the team to boost the actual squad ‘numbers’, but none of them have any sort of first team experience at the FC or out on loan, at all. I don’t think I’ve actually seen any of them play!   

For me that’s a bit of a dicey situation to be in, particularly in a season that sees 25 consecutive games, including at least one Cup game crammed into a tight fixture list and an expectation of some players being pulled out for an international, although we still have League commitments that weekend. 

If like last season it’s just a case of getting by with no relegation and just the commitments to Sky to maintain, its fine, you just get on with it and throw a lot of kids in there, but to approach a season with one player on long term injury and only seven players outside you’re starting 17, most of whom have limited first team experience, could be pretty scary.

 I know that times are hard in the game, which is a fine comment to make if everyone is in the same boat, but when you look through the squads of all the teams taking part then the likes of Rovers, Huddersfield and even Wakey have more depth than we have. 

The fixture list is simply relentless and with that squad we could easily find ourselves in trouble, because as many clubs discovered last year, the fewer players you have available the harder it is to get results, when you’re under the cosh. I’m not scare mongering and I hope that we are fine and I’m proved wrong, but being realistic, a break caused by a Covid outbreak and some mid-week games to fit in for instance, could condemn a team with such a small squad and a few injuries in key positions, to a scrap at the bottom of the League. 

Just have a look at the squads of our first two opponents and I think you’ll realise that. Huddersfield have had a clear out but with a new coach they have strengthened considerably and that can also be said of Salford whose new looks team appears to be pretty strong as well. Both Clubs will have a point to prove and we will have to be on our metal to get the result. One things for sure,  both games will be a big test of Hodgson’s aim to improve our defence. 

It’s easy to say ‘Don’t worry Wilf there’s always Leigh’ but I just think we’re a bit thin on players and it is a concern. No one wants to finish bottom particularly this year. Relegation for any club is a really big hurdle to over-come, but with all the debt there will be around clubs and at the time in a country coming out of a pandemic, I think it’s going to be really difficult for any club that goes down this year to even survive. 

Everyone will be desperate to avoid that outcome and I’m sure it won’t be us, but the battle at the bottom is going to be a tough one. Hopefully we won’t be anywhere near it, however I’m not sure in those circumstances whether the old adage of quality over quantity is going to be a good one. At the FC in past seasons, because of the depth of talent on the side-lines, we have usually been able to get through when we have four of five injuries and even had the luxury of sending some out on long term loan, but that depth of experienced players is missing now. We really do need a good start. 

However, we still have a trialist winger on board and some spare cap capacity, so we’ll see, although not having any quota space free certainly restricts what is available. I know a lot out there who don’t agree with me on this one, but in my opinion,  it’s bodies that have played a bit of Super League that we need as we face a gruelling season ahead. 

With that coming tough campaign in mind, I hear that we are expecting to sensibly play just one pre-season match this year and it’s a distinct possibility that it will be against York and perhaps even in their new ground. 

However, the game at large is still fraught with problems as well, because we are 5 weeks off the big kick-off and Covid cases are still likely to dictate that it’s a long time before we get crowds back into our stadiums. Coronavirus is still playing havoc across sport and already Leeds have had a period of isolation early in the piece, followed by Hudderfield and now both Catalan Dragons and Wigan are just themselves seeing players get back after staying away and preparing for the season on their own. Players are being tested with flow testing every day but its hardly a good preparation for the new campaign is it? 

In addition, players who have not yet arrived in this country to join Super League clubs, will now have to go through the ten-day isolation procedure in hotels at airports.  So, nothing is again straight-forward and you have to wonder which club will be next to see players told to stay at home. With cases on the rise again across Hull and bucking the national trend, I reckon we’ll have to be careful. 

On to other things and you know, in life in general I really cannot stand bigotry, homophobia, racism or any of the scourges of current society of that same ilk. In fact, I was quite irate when I heard the other day of the way that the family had to keep some hate mail from Colonel Sir Tom Moore, which was actually described as horrific!! Some people just bugger belief don’t they? 

The modern computer age and the recent lockdown has seen a proliferation of such abuse by mindless idiots sat in their bed rooms with the curtains drawn and sadly as I have found out from time to time when writing this, anyone is fair game. You can therefore understand that I was  a bit perturbed when I read of what referee Chris Kendall has been through at the hands of online trolls and then so pleased when, after some awful haranguing on line, he has spoken out in agreement with the RFL’s stance to support stronger action from social media companies over the online abuse of sportspeople. The action of some morons had actually forced the referee to delete his Twitter account towards the back end of the 2020 season.

In response to Chris’s comments  the RFL sent out an impassioned plea last Friday stating that, “Rugby League recognises that its own players, match officials and others involved in the game have themselves been targets for abuse and discrimination. This is unacceptable. Rugby League has developed a far-reaching action plan, ‘TACKLE IT’ Rugby League versus Discrimination, which sets out how the game will extend its reach and appeal, diversify its talent pool, improve its culture and actively deal with all forms of discrimination.” 

However, for me we can’t be tolerating such abuse in our great game and it has to stop, although in reality we all know that it won’t. But we don’t want such cretins associated with Rugby League and as far as I’m concerned they can all bugger off and take their bile and cowardly ways somewhere else, for they aren’t true fans of the game!! 

 As you all know by now, I don’t rate referees much at all and Chris Kendall certainly ain’t my favourite of that band of merry men, but I defend his right to go about his job without that sort of abuse. After what he has had to put up with, my claims that he need to visit an optician, usually made from behind the settee, pale into insignificance! Good luck to the guy for he has my 100% support, it’s an unenviable job, but someone’s got to do it and they should be able to carry out their duties without being trolled on line, in such a way.   

Well, I think you’ll all agree that I spent long enough in here last week hypothesising about the woes of the RFL, the Super League situation post the resignation of the Chief Executive and the Press’s motives towards the game we all love. So, I won’t be perpetuating that much this week, but it was good to read Martin Sadler apologising for printing that story about the Chairman of Wigan Ian Lenagan stepping down after the Lancashire Clubs chief denied there was any truth in it at all. Sadler said that he had two good sources that told him the story, but he hadn’t had time to check it out with Lenagan himself so ….. he printed it anyway! 

As for the other stuff I looked at in detail last week well the future governance of the game and of Super League Europe as a separate entity is still up in the air, but it needs sorting quickly, so we can all get on with the 2021 season. 

There was a new development this week however, which was the announcement from the RFL that no decision was as yet being made about relegation and promotion from and to Super League and for me, that was something that that came a bit out of the blue really. With just 5 weeks to go to the big kick-off teams still don’t know what they are playing for. Apparently at this stage, there is no suggestion that promotion and relegation will be scrapped. Likewise, there are not believed to be any immediate plans to restructure the divisions next year, which would have an inevitable impact on the ability to promote and relegate teams. So, why the hesitancy? 

Well ,we are told that the Super League Board are looking to shorten the proposed new deal being negotiated with Sky, so  that they can ‘assess what new structures etc. would benefit the game’, but that’s a bit of a lame excuse for the delay, particularly when the RFL had already announced a 6 team play off at the end of the 2021 Championship season with the winners going up. And anyway, how does that affect relegation and promotion? Yet all of a sudden things are put on hold. But Why? 

We can all fantasise can’t we and many people on social media are doing just that, but no one really knows as yet. Some who think they are in the know are suggesting that Sky may have proposed putting more money on the table (for what is generally accepted at present, as a reduced deal ) to accommodate more teams, if the game is restructured to suit them. Perhaps they are looking at the NRL and like what they see and so will put more money in for a bigger Super League with no loop fixtures, which even for the casual TV viewer must become tedious. That though wouldn’t affect promotion from the Championship (but it would stop relegation from the top division), so why should the Championship Clubs be concerned? Perhaps indeed as someone floated, we are back in talks with the NRL about amalgamating the games.  Of course, no one knows really and people are just making stuff up but it’s all a bit of a mystery, so we’ll just wait and see.

Still on the impact of the virus and there is already an admission that outbreaks at clubs during the season and the overseas clubs in both the competitions suffering from reduce cross channel travel for the first couple of months of it, is a big worry! In fact, it may well prevent a full Super League and the Championship season being completed. That has resulted in the likelihood of the points percentage system, used in Super League last season, being implemented again this year.  A minimum threshold of games will be set though, likely to be around the 70% mark, which must be reached to play in the play-offs. So, with possibly a percentage points system and with new rules and no scrums once again, the sport will still be a lot different than were we left it back last March won’t it?

Now you know that of late I have printed what I’m thinking about in these quiet times, as we hang in suspended animation between the teams coming back into training and starting a season which once again will see crowds excluded from games. I’ve not always found favour with you lot the readers, but I hope as always what I have had to say has provoked some discussion. A lot of you who regularly get in touch have aired your views and that’s absolutely great and just what I hoped would happen. Last week I tried in my own muddled mind to make some sense of the Robert Elstone mess and again fell fowl of one or two regulars, but in addition to the disagreements there were several people who had their own angle on things as well. 

One such contributor was Steve Spencer who despite residing in Northern Spain and being an FC fan, is also a closet Catalan Dragons fan. Steve has kept in touch for years and recently he’s been thinking about things too and by his own admission having a deal of time on his hands, he wrote a long E mail last Wednesday that included a couple of bits that I thought were worth sharing with everyone. 

He wrote of the games current situation as follows; 

…as you said Wilf, the decision to let the Leigh Centurions into Super League with Covid so prevalent in the old Country was probably the right decision or at least understandable, but for me personally keeping a second French team out and denying the sport a new rivalry in the game’s only other European heartland, was a huge mistake and a massive missed opportunity. You fancied Leigh all along I know, but I disagreed with you and always thought that another French team was our best bet.  

As you said this week not everything that Robert Elstone led was bad and he was ‘hung out to dry’ a bit by several Directors of Super League but, many of his strategies will leave a long-lasting mark on the game in the Northern Hemisphere. You covered most of them in this week’s Diary, yet not all the problems we now experience are to be placed at his door. For instance, Toronto being let in by the RFL at League 1 level (before they burned through their owner’s cash with no commitment to developing Canadian players) was always going to see it go wrong when the owner’s money ran out. I accept that Covid was a factor, but they discovered what so many others have, in that the jump from the Championship to the top division is a massive one and as you often say the yo-yo effect that it causes with just a 12 team League, is there for all to see. So not a good shout from the RFL at all and again it just poses the question do we want Super League to totally go back in with them again?

From where I’m sat here miles away from the action in rainy Tossa de Mar the whole things is just too volatile for the game to flourish.  However, the offer of protected status in the top flight, provided clubs meet certain criteria (minimum squad level of homegrown players for instance) and a minimum number of Internationals in the yearly calendar, to raise the profile of the game on an international stage, could for me be the way forward. I detect that you feel we need a bigger League with more stability for its members, without shutting the door completely on the other clubs in the lower divisions.  

So, I completely agree that we have to protect the Betfred Super League’s current Clubs for that is where all the money men and TV interest is, for they are the revenue stream for the game, yet it requires a longer strategy than that yo-yo up and down effect allows. The gulf between the Divisions is just too great. Now I see this week that we haven’t yet made a decision on promotion and relegations and what Clubs like Featherstone and particularly York, who have invested heavily in an attempt to get promoted must think about that, ‘buggers belief’ really. As the world watches in once again we are in turmoil ….”

I’ll cut it short there but it was great to hear from you Steve, as it always is and I hope that the Donkeys are OK (that’s not a reference to the Catalan Dragons by the way, but rather to the fact that his wife volunteers at a Donkey sanctuary). We all want the game to thrive and have the profile in sport that it deserves, but as always your correspondence once again indicates that there are many opinions out there and just more questions than answers at present!    

So that’s it for another week folks, I’ve again done my best, gone on a bit and spread a bit of doom and gloom around our squad size and the future of the game in general, when perhaps there is no need to worry about it at all, but I hope that you at least found something to interest you. Thanks for all the communications this week and for your continued support in what are still strange times in our game and our lives in general.

Stay safe  

Faithfully Yours 

Wilf

And finally, another baby Photo this week, which came with the following message from reader Ian Middleton;

“Just sending you a picture of my wonderful grandson with his signed shirt sent to him by our club. I couldn’t be prouder of my grandson and my club”.

What a lovely grandson Ian and what a smashing touch from the FC!!

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